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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Novel Dinner

Crispy egg, bacon hushpuppies, tripe, frisee

Last week, I had the pleasure of dining at Novel, a restaurant in Kansas City which is, frankly, still the talk of the town.

True to form of my own laziness and consideration, I don't like to visit restaurants when they're absolutely brand new. I've worked in the kitchens of opening restaurants enough to know that kitchens, like baby animals, need some time to figure out how their legs work. I try to not visit new restaurants until they've got about 6 months(at least) under their belt. This way, I know that they've gotten most of the new kinks out, such as which servers suck, which dishes need to be timed perfectly for a busy service, etc.

I honestly can't stand it when critics review restaurants right out of the gates. Sure the food is probably going to be new and exciting, but there are going to be kinks in the system, and that's just the way it is. This is the nature of the Beast, and many critics/writers(and, frankly, angry Yelp users) just don't understand that you need to give them a second. Geez, guys, can you give them a second? Let them grow a touch before you judge.

Novel boasts Ryan Brazael, New York City Chef, who came to Kansas City to start this place, who most-famously worked with David Chang. I studied David Chang in Culinary school, and am no stranger to the techniques and signatures that evolved out of Momofuku, if only by the written word and trying it myself from the book. The NYC influence is pretty apparent, and that is a great thing.

I dined on a Tuesday night in the quaint Victorain-style manor that had become the restaurant. It was cozy and tiny, and had a stairway that you need to watch your head on to get upstairs. I don't know how many people it seats, but B("B" for boyfriend), who is an architect, joked about how the single stylish door might not be up to fire code if it sat more than 80 people. He then went on to say that if a building is constructed prior to a new code or law or whatever, they technically have something called a "grandfather" clause, which lets you hang on to the historical integrity of the structure. Or something. I kind of was only half paying attention when trying to get up the stairs in a short skirt and 4-inch heels.

The view is charming, and we dined at sunset, which made it even moreso. The patio is so quaint and stylish, old and new at the same time. We aren't drinkers, but the cocktail menu looked nice and clean. I loved that the actual menu was very nice and clean, too. I honestly don't like it when menus are too big; it's bad news for restaurants, unless you're a giant corporate running a Cheesecake Factory or Chili's or something. It is this humble blogger's opinion that smaller restaurants are better off sticking to smaller menus, perfecting them, making each dish perfect every time, versus focusing on wide varieties.

I was recommended the octopus by a friend, but B isn't that adventurous of an eater, so we opted to split the crispy egg instead(pictured above). This is by far one of the absolute coolest techniques I've ever seen. I don't know how they do it, but I can guess: sous vide the egg at a low temperature for about 40 minutes(I learned this technique in school; it's called "slow poaching") and then pop in a blast chiller. Remove egg from its shell, bread, and deep-fry, resulting in a warm and gooey yolk that's perfectly cooked. But, then again, I have no actual idea on how they did it. This is only my educated guess. Boy, was it delicious. I loved it. The tripe was a bit much for B, but I thought it was great.

Roasted chicken, grilled rice, egg yolk, scallion, radish
For the entree, I ordered the sea bass while B went with the roasted chicken, which featured another slow-poached egg element, but only in the form of the yolk. The chicken was also accompanied with grilled rice and scallion elements. The radishes seemed to be quick-pickled, but I didn't ask. The bite I had was delicious, and it honestly made me a little sad that I didn't order it myself. It was a good-sized portion, and I was almost disappointed when I saw the size of my own entree, the sea bass, in comparison. But let me clarify on something: size doesn't always matter.

See, I was presented with this gorgeous wild sea bass with big, juicy flakes and a super-crispy skin. It was seasoned perfectly and accompanied with excellent garnishes of celeriac puree and parsnip. The dish was gorgeous and expertly prepared. So, even though I would have liked more, I didn't necessarily because...well, I was satisfied. It takes a good chef to make you enjoy a first bite, but a great one to make you enjoy your last. And you know what? I did enjoy my last bite of that sea bass dish, because I wanted more.

I'll have dreams of the crispy skin on this sea bass...

Oh, and the crab jam pictured on the bottom? I'd like a jar of it, please.

I didn't want to skimp on dessert because I'm a.) a pastry chef and b.) a little fat girl . But I also heard that the pistachio cake was nothing to write home about. Intrigued, B and I ordered differing desserts: the roasted apple for him and the honey semifreddo for me.

Honey semifreddo, pear, chai spice cake
The honey semifreddo dessert wasn't bad. The chai spice cake tasted like an isi canister cake, which is a really cool technique. Basically, you can use one of these puppies to bake cakes in a microwave! Simply pop cake batter into your canister, nox it up with the gas, let sit in the fridge for a few, and spray into paper or plastic cups. When nuked for 30 seconds or less, you get a wonderfully airy cake. The downside that I've found, however, to using this technique is that you yield a rather dry sponge...so best stick with things like angel food style cakes versus your typical butter cake. I asked our server(this absolutely adorable blond girl)and she came back with saying that they didn't have a microwave on premises, but that the Chef knew what I was talking about and that's how they did the chocolate cake at Momofuku. Cool beans, right?

Roasted apple, puff pastry, vanilla ice cream

I had a bite of B's roasted apple and it was pretty darn good. The puff pastry was light and flaky and crunchy on a level that was almost unreal, so kudos to that. The thing was...it was just "alright." The dessert menu at Novel seemed nice, simple, but it reminded me of an old favorite analogy: "It was like a Toyota Camry--reliable, but not inspiring." The desserts honestly almost seemed like an afterthought. Oh, sure, I got it: the roasted apple was like a wonderful, elevated apple pie or apple turnover. And who doesn't like pears with honey? Simple cuisine. I get it.

Do you know what else I get? It's good. It's good food. Is it expensive? Yes. Does it deliver? Yes. Does it disappoint? No, but only if you don't get dessert and if you're a giant raging dessert snob like I am. And you know what? You don't have to get dessert. But you have to get those crispy eggs(which were unreal).

Novel on Urbanspoon When I asked who the pastry chef of Novel was, I was told that there was a lady who came in to help with the baking (probably breads, puff pastries, etc) but the Chef was their pastry chef. "Ah", I thought.

Here's the trouble with pastries and desserts in restaurants: when the Chef is the pastry chef, it(unfortunately) becomes an afterthought. The real meat of the menu should come where the meat is, rightly so. I know it sounds harsh, but I just don't think that the desserts live up to how amazing the food is. Chef Ryan has done a truly great job with the food, and that should not be overlooked. But the fact of the matter is that the dessert seemed like it was just an afterthought. It's well prepared, yes, and it's technically correct, yes. It's just...alright. I honestly left feeling a little under-whelmed(opposite of overwhelmed) by it. I almost wish that I didn't get it because the meal itself was otherwise perfect. I don't think it's a sin by any stretch of the imagination; I just think that it could be better. I don't think I'll come back for the dessert.

But I will be back for those crispy eggs and to see what else is on the menu.

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